Definition of Imagery

As a literary device, imagery consists of descriptive language that can function as a way for the reader to better imagine the world of the piece of literature and also add symbolism to the work. Imagery draws on the five senses, namely the details of taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound. Imagery can also pertain to details about movement or a sense of a body in motion (kinesthetic imagery) or the emotions or sensations of a person, such as fear or hunger (organic imagery or subjective imagery). Using imagery helps the reader develop a more fully realized understanding of the imaginary world that the author has created.

Common Examples of Imagery

We use imagery in everyday speech to convey our meaning. Here are some examples of imagery from each of the five senses:

  • Taste: The familiar tang of his grandmother’s cranberry sauce reminded him of his youth.
  • Sound: The concert was so loud that her ears rang for days afterward.
  • Sight: The sunset was the most gorgeous they’d ever seen; the clouds were edged with pink and gold.
  • Smell: After eating the curry, his breath reeked of garlic.
  • Touch: The tree bark was rough against her skin.

Significance of Imagery in Literature

Imagery examples are prevalent in all types of literature from cultures around the world. Poets, novelists, and playwrights use imagery for many reasons. One of the key usages is that the imagery in a piece can help create mood, such as the clichéd opening “It was a dark and stormy night.” While this line is too hackneyed for any author to actually use it, it is a good example of imagery in that the reader immediately pictures the kind of setting in which the story may take place. This particular imagery also creates a mood of foreboding. Indeed, even Shakespeare used this type of opening for his famous play MacBeth: the three witches in the beginning speak of the “thunder, lightning [and] rain” and the “fog and filthy air.”

While an author may use imagery just to help readers understand the fictive world, details of imagery often can be read symbolically. In the previous example of MacBeth, the thunder and lightning that open the play symbolize both the storm that is already taking place in Scotland and the one that is about to begin once MacBeth takes over the throne. Thus, when analyzing literature it is important to consider the imagery used so as to understand both the mood and the symbolism in the piece.

Examples of Imagery in Literature

Example #1: Taste

On rainy afternoons, embroidering with a group of friends on the begonia porch, she would lose the thread of the conversation and a tear of nostalgia would salt her palate when she saw the strips of damp earth and the piles of mud that the earthworms had pushed up in the garden. Those secret tastes, defeated in the past by oranges and rhubarb, broke out into an irrepressible urge when she began to weep. She went back to eating earth. The first time she did it almost out of curiosity, sure that the bad taste would be the best cure for the temptation. And, in fact, she could not bear the earth in her mouth. But she persevered, overcome by the growing anxiety, and little by little she was getting back her ancestral appetite, the taste of primary minerals, the unbridled satisfaction of what was the original food.

(One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez)

This passage from Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude discusses one of the character’s pica eating disorder. There are many examples of imagery using the sense of taste, including “a tear would salt her palate,” “oranges and rhubarb,” and “the taste of primary minerals.” The imagery in this excerpt makes the experience of an eating disorder much more vivid and imaginable to the reader.

Example #2: Sound

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

(“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost)

When most people think of Robert Frost’s famous poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the final refrain comes to mind: “And miles to go before I sleep.” Yet the short poem contains many imagery examples that are simple yet set the scene well. In this excerpt, there is a juxtaposition of two sounds: the bright noise of the horse’s harness bells and the nearly silent sound of wind and snowflake. While the reader knows that this is a dark night, the sense of sound makes the scene even more realistic.

Example #3: Sight

Outside, even through the shut window-pane, the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no colour in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The black mustachioed face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston’s own. Down at street level another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word INGSOC. In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight.

(1984 by George Orwell)

One of the central conceits of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 is the all-pervasive surveillance of this society. This is a world that has its eyes constantly open—“Big Brother is watching you” is the motto of the society—yet the world itself is almost colorless. All that the main character, Winston, sees is “whirling dust,” “torn paper,” and posters of a “black mustachioed face” with “dark eyes.” These sensory details contribute to a general feeling of unease and foreshadow the way in which the world appears more chilling as the novel goes on.

Example #4: Smell

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease.

(Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind)

Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer focuses on a character who has a very acute sense of smell. The novel, therefore, has numerous examples of imagery using descriptions of smell. This excerpt comes from the beginning of the novel where Suskind sets up the general palate of smells in eighteenth-century Paris. Using these smells as a backdrop, the reader is better able to understand the importance of the main character’s skill as a perfumer. The reader is forced to imagine the range of smells in this novel’s era and setting that no longer assault us on a daily basis.

Test Your Knowledge of Imagery

1. Choose the best imagery definition:

A. A technique using descriptive details from the five senses.
B. A way of seeing things in a new light.
C. A way to describe a character’s emotions.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. What effect does the imagery produce in this opening passage from George Orwell’s novel 1984?

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him. The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.

A. Since the opening line is in April, this passage sets up expectations for Winston Smith to better his situation throughout the spring.
B. The contradictory details of Winston’s building being named Victory Mansions and it smelling of boiled cabbage and old rag mats creates a feeling of unease in the reader.
C. The fact that most of these details are unpleasant—the vile wind, the gritty dust, and old rag mats—makes the reader understand that Winston is a pessimistic man.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is the best answer. While it could turn out that Winston is pessimistic, as in answer C, the objective details of the imagery in this passage don’t lead to that conclusion.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following lines from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” contains imagery?

A. The woods are lovely, dark and deep
B. But I have promises to keep
C. And miles to go before I sleep
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the only line with imagery.[/spoiler]